Farewell Cliff Neville, ‘My Dear Boy’

My best mate, Cliff Neville, died last week of cancer, aged 63. He was a true gentleman of journalism, and one of the nicest and gentlest blokes you’d ever want to meet. A memorial service was held at the Macquarie Park Crematorium last Friday, attended by 300 people, and this is an edited version of the tribute I delivered. Immediately following is the tribute by Allan Hogan, one of the most distinguished journalists in Australia, and a close friend of Cliff. Lawyer Ian Mutton, a friend of Cliff for 50 years, also delivered a wonderful tribute, but he was speaking from notes, so I don’t have a transcript. Also speaking at the service were his godson, Lachlan Carey, and his nephew, Matthew Neville.  

I’ve known Cliff Neville since 1975 and we first met by telex. He was the London correspondent for The Australian, and we used to communicate by telex, which always ran out of paper at the wrong time, like your printer does now. I was the foreign editor of The Oz and we used to talk regularly. I think he noticed my lack of discretion in our correspondence, my support for Gough Whitlam, and my disdain for bosses of all kinds, especially the incompetent ones. We confirmed all that when he returned to Australia in 1976. We have been mates ever since.

“My Dear Boy” was a favourite expression of Cliff Neville. It usually came at the end of a long lunch or dinner, or sometimes a day-night match of eating and drinking at the original Malaya on George Street, a hop, step and big jump from Central Station. Any journalist of our vintage would know where that was, and probably went there.

The cry was always accompanied by a bear hug. No, he wasn’t bare, at least most of the time, but it was a bear of the grizzly kind, except in Cliff’s case, a grizzly bear with a grin. As you were being squeezed within an inch of your life, you were thinking, “Cliff must have had one too many, perhaps it’s time for him … or me … to go home.”

But as far as I know, Cliff never squeezed anyone to death. He was just smothering people with kindness and love.

Forget the Finkelstein Inquiry. We grew up in a time when journalism was fun. It was also hard work, but after a long, long day, you could stop at the Journos Club, open 24 hours, and drown your sorrows, or celebrate your victories. When we made mistakes, we didn’t need a Press Council to criticise us, our peers came down on us like a tonne of bricks in what I used to call the Phil Cornford School of Journalism, telling us in no uncertain terms where we had gone wrong in the local pub. Phil is still alive, a great reporter and writer, whose voice has often been compared to the Third Runway. It certainly could be heard above the din in the Evening Star and Invicta Hotels.

That’s where Cliff learned his trade, starting as a cadet with the Sydney Daily Telegraph. He then became a feature writer with the Sunday Telegraph before moving to the UK and the role of London correspondent for The Australian … where we began our friendship with telexes.

He returned to Sydney in 1976 to become chief of staff of The Australian, and earned his legendary status with his ability to manage people. With a stroke of his beard, he could motivate the staff and inspire them to work long hours and break big stories. Cliff moved to television as Deputy News Director at Channel Seven under Vincent Smith.

He was the perfect Deputy, loyal to the man above him, but as a later boss of 60 Minutes, Peter Meakin, said, he was his own man, too. Peter told the Australian this week: “Cliff was a rock – solid, dependable, wise and loyal.  A friend to all, but a servant to none … (and) he could defuse the most explosive situation with a wry comment.”

The award-winning journalist, Graham Davis, who was a young reporter at Channel Seven when Cliff took over the deputy news director’s job, remembers him as a master mentor in a lovely posting on his blog on the Grubstreet website (http://bit.ly/GCi6MI): “Above all, Cliff could motivate and inspire. He made you look forward to coming to work, to feel proud to be part of a team, to be proud of your own work, to never cut corners, to respect the facts, to respect the ordinary people you dealt with, to respect the intelligence of your audience and to beat your competitors – to win.”

Cliff was a mentor to me, too, even though I was four years older. He got me over to Channel Seven in 1983 by asking me at Weatherup’s Wine Bar (Malcolm Weatherup, is now in Townsville, writing a blog http://www.townsvillemagpie.com.au/), if I’d like to be the network’s first foreign editor. It took me ten seconds to say yes (I had to finish my beer first!). And in one of my early days in the job, I was asked by the overnight producer at CNN – Eason Jordan, who later became the network’s chief news executive — if I could send him some pictures of the America’s Cup victory via satellite.

“Okay,” I asked Cliff, “how do I book a satellite to send some pictures to CNN?” He quietly sat down and explained it, as he stroked his beard. He made it all seem so easy.

I really enjoyed working with him, but he moved on to one of television’s top jobs: supervising producer of 60 Minutes in 1984, and I stayed on at Channel Seven, where several executives were doing their best to undermine News Director Vincent Smith. But I was rescued by Cliff again in 1986 when he suggested to the supervising producer of the Sunday Program, Richard Carey, with whom we both worked at The Australian, that I’d make a good foreign editor, and they were looking for one. Richard approached me, and a week later, I was working at the Sunday Program, where I stayed for 20 years.

THE GLUE THAT HELD 60 MINUTES TOGETHER

Cliff stayed at 60 Minutes for 18 years, where he was the glue that held the long-running current affairs program together. He thrived under the guidance of Gerald Stone, who taught Cliff the best lesson a manager can learn: “Praise in public, and criticise in private.” If you said surely that’s what all managers do, then you haven’t worked in television.

The Sunday Program and 60 Minutes often had joint lunches, usually on Tuesday, the quietest day of the week for Sunday current affairs programs, and in those days, we knew how to lunch. In the dog-eat-dog world of television (sorry, Fobwatch!  Editor’s note: Cliff’s dog and chairman of his company, Fobwatch Productions), simmering problems were often solved over a chicken curry at the Sentosa or a Chinese meal at Peacock Gardens, both in the Sydney suburb of Crows Nest, especially when management was paying.

That’s where Cliff was at his best, wheeling and dealing and selling story ideas to management and staff, and healing internal wounds that would have festered if they weren’t brought out into the open.  As Peter Meakin also said about Cliff:  “When the advice you least wanted to hear was most needed, he was the guy who gave it to you.” These days fewer and fewer television executives want to hear that advice, and often react it by calling the producer negative. There wasn’t a negative bone in Cliff Neville’s body.

A friend and former 60 Minutes producer, Andrew Haughton, told me last week: “Cliff was the perfect chief of staff. His calm and relaxed exterior belied a very good and very quick brain. He was aware of all the ramifications of any story. He set up the Lindy Chamberlain story for Ray Martin and me. And he made it all seem so easy.” Andrew also said: “In an industry with no class, Cliff personified class.”

Cliff decided to take a voluntary redundancy in 2002, but he didn’t leave 60 Minutes completely. He did a number of stories for them as a freelance producer, including a profile of an Abba revival by Richard Carleton. “Abba, what is that,” Richard asked Cliff when he was told that was on the agenda of stories to be done on a trip to London.

Among the other stories he produced for 60 Minutes were: the legal battle over medical care funds for paralysed actor Jon Blake in 1999, a profile of composer Burt Bacharach in 2001;  Sophie DeLezio, the little miracle girl, who survived terrible injuries in a crash, and a number of medical yarns, including euthanasia, with various Sixty reporters.

When the 60 Minutes well of stories dried up – not from his side, but theirs – Cliff started producing for the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program, headed by former 60 Minutes supervising producer, Mark Llewellyn, in 2010. Among those stories were: a profile of Australia’s richest man, Twiggy Forrest; a ski cancer story featuring Mike Munro;  the Rats of Tobruk, in which a former Australian soldier admitted he had killed a prisoner. And the story he was most proud of, a profile of the unbeaten Black Caviar. Cliff produced a wonderful yarn for Channel Seven, even though it was a Channel Nine event, because he had gained the trust of the horse’s owners and trainer.

He always had a bevy of stories to offer program producers, but to their detriment, they didn’t always accept his suggestions. He offered 60 Minutes a profile of Julia Gillard long before she became Prime Minister and he had it all set up, but they decided political stories were boring. Such is the life of a freelance producer.

And Cliff Neville also has a literary bent. He co-authored two books with Barbara Holborow, the Children’s Court magistrate. The first, Those Tracks on My Face, also written with the help of Janet Fife-Yeomans, told of Barbara’s years as a magistrate and her long fight for justice for children. Like most people Cliff met, Barbara Holborow became a friend and this led to another jointly written volume, Kids Loving for Life, a guide to help you grow with your children and make you a better parent. The book’s out of print, but Cliff was still getting requests from people wanting a copy as recently as last week.

And before we go, I have a special guest, Matthew Neville, Cliff’s nephew, who’s come all the way from Detroit. He’s a bit jet-lagged, having arrived this morning and having been picked up by Lachlan Carey, Cliff’s godson, whose father Richard, who I mentioned earlier, was Cliff’s great friend. Both he and Matthew would like to say a few words about their godfather and their uncle.

(I don’t have a transcript of their remarks, but both gave heartfelt tributes to Cliff.)

And that’s all there is, my friends, a segue to our closing montage put together by former 60 Minutes editor, Mike Chirgwin, and the photos prepared for the videos by Mayu Kanamori, with a stunning shot in the Midwest tornado alley by Bradley Ambrose (taken during a story produced by Cliff for Sunday Night). And Jocelyn would like to thank me and Mike and Mayu; the Henville family for all the grog and love, all their wonderful neighbours, especially Terry Ashman and his wife, Donna. Terry was with me and Joc on Cliff’s last day and helped get him in and out of bed, the chair and the lounge and we couldn’t have done it without Terry. And their lovely next door neighbours, Damo and Sarah Maloney, who are simply terrific. The neighbours remind me of mine back in West Philly, who were always there when you needed them. And if you want to do something to fight the disease that killed Cliff and so many other Australians, please donate to Cancer Research at Royal North Shore Hospital, where Stephen Clark, another neighbour and friend of Cliff, works in medical oncology research (as well as a professor of medicine at Concord Hospital). Stephen helped save Cliff’s life a few years ago. Stephen and his wife, Di, a specialist endocrinologist at North Shore, convinced Cliff to go into hospital several times – one of the most difficult medical tasks of the 21st Century.  Jocelyn would like to thank them for everything, including taking her and Susan Smith, the widow of Vincent Smith, Cliff’s first boss in television at Channel Seven to dinner last night. Cliff’s cancer council hat, a 1971 photo of Cliff and Joc, the Fobwatch logo and some get well cards made by children in Joc’s day care are all on top of the coffin. Susan has been staying with Joc and helping her in the last few days, for which she thanks you very much, Susan. And we have probably forgotten to thank somebody, but we do that now with the generic “thank you.”

And that’s all there is, my friends. Goodbye, Dear Boy …

Allan Hogan is one of Australia’s most distinguished journalists. He was the foundation executive producer of the Channel Nine Sunday Program, a reporter, presenter and foreign correspondent for the ABC, the supervising producer of 60 Minutes, and a close friend of Cliff Neville. Here is his tribute:

I often thought that Cliff should have been a doctor – his medical knowledge was astounding – sometimes he would surprise me with his extensive knowledge of some rare medical condition or disease, and if any of his friends came down with an illness or puzzling condition he would often make a surprisingly accurate diagnosis and suggest the best doctor to treat it.  Sadly, he wasn’t able to save himself from the illness that has robbed us of his friendship so prematurely.

I first met Cliff when he was working as chief of staff for Channel Seven’s news.  He was so highly regarded that I tried to poach him for the new program I was working on for the ABC called The National which everyone now remembers as “the ill-fated National.”  Showing clever judgment, Cliffy turned that offer down and soon after went to 60 Minutes as supervising producer – a job he held for 18 years.

That was how I met him again when I rejoined 60  Minutes as a producer twenty years ago. He was a memorable character – that beard, the wavy hair, his steady gaze, the lived-in face – he was almost the stereotype of the seasoned journo.   It wasn’t just his appearance – he was always on the lookout for a good story, and loved the challenge of beating the competition.  But for most of his career Cliff wasn’t seeking personal glory for the stories he pursued, his role was to open the door for others and give them the support they needed to do the job.

Hamish Thomson, now the Executive Producer of 60 Minutes, told me that Cliff was his first boss when he started at the Daily Telegraph.   Hamish said Cliff was a great mentor whose advice was practical, succinct, and came from a wealth of experience. Hamish is just one in a long list of journalists who have benefited from working with Cliffy.  Some of the most prominent names in Australian journalism have worked alongside him, and it’s proof of their respect for him that many of them are here today.

Hamish also told me that Cliff introduced him to that most important journalistic activity, the long lunch. On the rare occasions I get to look inside a news room these days I’m shocked to hear that the long lunch has gone the way of the typewriter and the linotype machine. How do young journalists find out what’s going on if they can’t tap into the grapevine over a steak and a couple of beers?  Well, all right make that four beers.  And a bottle of red, or two.  There was a rumour that trading in shares in the Bridgeview was suspended when the stock market heard the news of Cliff’s death.

But seriously, Cliff knew the value of the long lunch – how it got colleagues swapping ideas, building team loyalty, and occasionally sorting out a difference of opinion. And he was pleasant company – a good listener and a great storyteller with a keen sense of humour. And that wasn’t always in the pub or a restaurant, anyone who was invited to his home knows what a generous and entertaining host he was, ably assisted as in all things by Jocelyn to whom today we extend our deep sympathy.

A BEACON OF DECENCY

Cliff’s war stories were always entertaining and sometimes hilarious.  I remember that he travelled to Britain to do a story with the Reverend W. Awdry, who, if his name is not familiar to you, was the author of an endless series of books for kids about trains. Thomas the Tank Engine was one of the more popular titles. As Cliff told the story, he was expecting to meet a charming old man, a benign man of the cloth whose books had charmed two generations of children. Instead he had to deal with a cantankerous curmudgeon who was deaf, bedridden and entirely unfriendly. Cliff decided that the interview wasn’t worth pursuing when the Reverend Awdry coughed up a huge ball of phlegm and aimed it (inaccurately as it turned out) at a spittoon sitting on his bed.

In an industry that has more than its share of bad guys, Cliff was one of the good guys.  TV people are fond of quoting Hunter S. Thompson’s famous words about their business being “a cruel and shallow money trench where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.” The truth is Thompson wrote those words about the music business, but they do seem to have a relevance to the TV industry.  Speaking  to his former colleagues at 60 Minutes over the past few days, I’ve not been surprised to hear them say that Cliff stood out as a beacon of decency, someone whose word could be trusted, someone who would never knife you in the back.  His job at 60 Minutes required much more than journalistic skills, he had to put teams of people together who could work harmoniously sometimes under very testing circumstances.  He was quietly aware of the personal clashes that arise in any group of colleagues, and had the skill of a good diplomat in making sure that didn’t get in the way of getting the job done.  And he never forgot that the 60 Minutes crews had family who were often waiting anxiously for news from whatever remote and difficult place they had travelled to.

Friendship was important to Cliff and he made sure that even as some of his former colleagues slipped into semi-retirement, the important ritual of a lunchtime gathering should not be abandoned. Few weeks would pass without Cliffy phoning the usual gang of suspects to join him for a curry or to try a new restaurant.  More recently, Cliff would confine himself to just one glass of wine, but he was always in good spirits and working on a new project or story idea.  And around the lunch table there would be a chorus of agreement about the fuckwits who had failed to see the wisdom of his suggestions.

I always hoped that Cliff would write a book about his life and times.  It would have been a great read.  He was a mentor to Barbara Holborow for her best seller Those Tracks on My Face, typically giving support and encouragement for the publication of her story about her years as a children’s magistrate.  But the closest Cliff came to his own book was planning the definitive history of the Jack Russell terrier, a labour of love given his own close connection to Fobwatch, the chairman of Cliff’s company Fobwatch Productions Pty Ltd.  I was fascinated by Cliff’s account of the Reverend Jack Russell who, back in the 1800s, bred a line of fox hunting terriers that eventually took his name.  I thought it would make a terrific book and when I worked out the world’s population of Jack Russell owners, I thought it would a good money spinner as well, but sadly another great idea of Cliff’s did not find fertile soil.

With typical lack of fuss, Cliff told me a few weeks back that he was dealing with a few medical issues.  When the full story became clear he and Jocelyn invited Jess and I over to their place for afternoon tea. Sitting on his back verandah, Cliff explained without any drama that he was not going to be an oncologist’s guinea pig and that he was ready for whatever fate lay ahead.   He had a totally rational dislike of hospitals and on the occasions he ended up in Royal North Shore in recent weeks he fought like a tiger to get back home. And so he managed to die in his own bed, in his own home, with Jocelyn and Fobwatch nearby – a dignified and peaceful end, but one that came far too soon.

Lunches won’t be the same without you Cliffy, we’re going to miss you, and good luck with that next story I’m sure you’re already working on.

15 thoughts on “Farewell Cliff Neville, ‘My Dear Boy’

  1. A Gret Tribute, to a Great man and Media Legend! By a Great Man and Media Legend! Well written Tom Krause! My most sincere condolonces to Jocelyn and Fobwatch. Kind Regards. Damien Quinn.

  2. Lovely posting, Tom. It was such a nice day, not the bit about saying goodbye to Cliff, but how he brought so many people together to celebrate his life. A lot of people said to me that afternoon – “did Cliff have any enemies at all?” And we just looked at each other and shook our heads. Au contraire. Our Dear Boy was social glue and it was so nice to reconnect with many of the people who knew him over the years. Thank you to you and Al Hogan et al for organising such a princely farewell. You both did your mate proud, boyo!

    With the greatest respect and affection,

    GD

    • Thanks, GD. It was a labor of love, as you know. Cliff would have loved the wake at his place. It was a great farewell party, and you’re right, Cliff brought people together. He will be sorely missed.
      Tom

  3. Sad here in distant London to receive news of Cliff – a much appreciated and most amiable colleague in the News Limited London Bureau so many decades ago. Still London-based, I had lost touch with Cliff’s movements, and had no idea of his considerable role in thoughtful Australian TV. Tom’s heartwarming elegy brought me up to date, and reminded me properly of the qualities of the man, and the expanded horizons he found. And it was good to remember TK himself, a colleague across the miles when I worked with The Australian.

    • Murray, It’s so good to hear from you, and thanks so much for your comments on my elegy. In the last few weeks, Cliff and I were reminiscing about old times, as you do, and your name came up — quite favourably, I hasten to add — and I asked if you were still alive. And Cliff said: “I think so.” Therefore, I am glad you are still alive, and well, I hope. Cliff will be profoundly missed, as Liz Hayes, a reporter on 60 Minutes Australia, said of her former colleague on the program the other night.

  4. Thank you Tom…for everything; particlary your wonderful words.
    My world, along with many others, will not be the same without him.
    Besides being my big brother, Cliff was my advisor, confidant, business partner at times and sage for over 61 years.

    Matthew and my younger son Mark absolutely adored him; and will also miss him dearly.

    I am sorry I missed the service, as I had not been well myself, but Matt refused NOT to be with Cliff for one last time; although he will be in our hearts and minds forever.

    Mike Neville.
    Cliff’s little and only brother.
    Detroit USA.

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks your kind words.
      There were 300 people at the service and, as Graham Davis said above, Cliff didn’t have an enemy in the world — even in the hard world of television.
      Matt gave his uncle Cliff a wonderful tribute at the service, and he did you and the family proud.
      Sorry you couldn’t make the service, but you would have been proud of him, too, to see the love that flowed for Cliff at the memorial and the wake afterwards.
      He was loved by everybody.
      My condolences to you and the family in Detroit.
      Tom

  5. Tom, I can’t believe I have only just caught up with this news, but it is sad indeed. I remember Cliff from the good old/bad old days at The Oz (or more likely at the Evil Star!) and also at Nine. Always a gentleman, always fun to have a chat with. I’m shocked and saddened by his early death. My sincerest condolences to his family and his friends. Your tribute is truly beautiful.

    • Hi Liz, Thanks for those kind words. From the reaction since his death, all I can say is that he didn’t have an enemy in the world. And the fact that 60 Minutes, Sunday Night, and last night, the Logies, all paid tribute to him is a comfort to his many friends and family. He was a real gentleman, and I miss him every day.

      • From my memory, a gentleman and a gentle man. Like yourself. He’s left us far too soon. Hope all is well with you.

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